Many feel that Trump should be held accountable for his actions as it is essential to preserve democratic principles Image Credit: Supplied

The mounting legal troubles surrounding Donald Trump continue to multiply, with two indictments delivered to the former president in 2023 alone.

The first — and potentially most damaging indictment was issued in June by a federal Grand Jury in Florida in response to Trump’s failure to comply with a federal subpoena following a request to hand over highly sensitive classified documents that Trump removed from the White House following the end of his term in 2021.

The documents were then transported to Trump’s Mar-a-Lago country club, and were stored haphazardly throughout the property. With a trial date set for May 2024, there is also a question of whether Trump obstructed government efforts to initially recover the classified documents, which resulted in a conspiracy to obstruct justice charge — among others.

Trump’s second indictment was issued by a Manhattan grand jury in relation to falsifying business records linked to hush money payments made to actress Stephanie Clifford in an attempt to bury damaging allegations in the weeks leading up to the 2016 presidential election. The claims have resulted in New York state criminal charges with a trial date set for March 2024.

Trump is expected to be charged with attempting to overturn his 2020 loss in the state of Georgia

Overturning the 2020 loss

In May of 2023, a New York state jury found Trump liable in a civil case for battery and defamation against columnist E. Jean Carroll, with a second, amended defamation trial set to begin in January 2024.

Trump is also facing a New York state civil lawsuit scheduled to begin this October concerning fraud allegations over claims Trump inflated his net worth by billions of dollars in an attempt to deceive banks and lenders.

If the former president’s legal team was not already preoccupied, charges are expected to be brought by Special Council Jack Smith momentarily regarding Trump’s efforts to undermine the results of the 2020 election and his potential involvement in the lead up to the Jan. 6, 2021 insurrection at the US Capitol.

Lastly, Trump is expected to be charged with attempting to overturn his 2020 loss in the state of Georgia. During a January 2021 recorded — and much-publicised phone call, Trump urged Georgia’s Secretary of State, Brad Raffensperger to ‘find’ additional ballots that would push Trump over the lead following his defeat to President Biden.

Fani Wallis, the District Attorney in Georgia who initially launched the investigation against Trump has previously implied charges against the former president could be filed as early as August 2023.

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Not without precedence

Considering the former POTUS continues to dominate primary polling, all signals point to the fact that Trump will once again be nominated as the Republican party presidential nominee in 2024. Trump could become the first presidential candidate forced to divvy his time shuttling between numerous court appearances and cross-country campaign rallies.

Such a time in US history however is not without precedence.

While running for re-election in 1972, President Nixon’s campaign aides hired James W. McCord, junior, a former CIA officer agent, along with four other men to run a covert operation to undermine Nixon’s democratic opposition.

In June 1972, the hired burglars conducted a break-in at the Democratic National Committee’s headquarters located inside the Watergate office complex in an attempt to plant eavesdropping devices and steal documents to expose political dirt on Nixon’s opponents.

Seeing as Nixon was able to keep his name out of the scandal throughout the remainder of the campaign season, the incumbent won re-election by a landslide in November 1972. However, as a result of a disorderly cover-up, along with a money trail linking Nixon’s campaign aids to the Watergate burglars, reporters were able to methodically link the crimes back to Nixon’s team, while also uncovering Nixon’s knowledge and approval of the illicit schemes.

Nixon — like Trump, overlooked one critical point. Recordings.

In 1971, Nixon had secretly installed recording devices inside the Oval Office to tape private conversations. Although Nixon had claimed the devices were useful for administrative and historical purposes, his then chief of staff, H.R. Haldeman claimed the tapes served as a fail-safe copy of private discussions in the event the president’s conversations were intentionally misconstrued.

Although Nixon was not involved in the planning of the DNC break-in, once the news broke, he approved a plan to use the CIA to obstruct the FBI’s investigation into the crimes. The plan, a blatant abuse of Nixon’s executive powers, was captured on the recording devices inside the Oval Office, and became known as the ‘smoking gun’ of the Watergate scandal.

Following the establishment of a Senate Watergate Committee, cross testimony with key witnesses revealed the existence of the tape recordings resulting in subpoena’s being issued to Nixon to hand over the tapes, which he initially refused to comply with. Nixon claimed the tapes were his ‘personal property’, attempting to exercise executive privilege. It wasn’t until the Supreme Court issued a ruling, ordering Nixon to release the tapes that his misconduct had finally been made public.

History may not repeat itself, but it certainly does rhyme.

Following the FBI search of Mar-a-Lago in August 2022, Trump repeatedly claimed the items taken from his home were ‘his, not the government’s’ — which included hundreds of classified documents, many marked ‘top secret’.

While Trump’s wrongdoings far outweigh the magnitude of Nixon’s scandals, the biggest divergence between the two remain the response from their political parties in reaction to their wrongdoings.

Acknowledging Nixon’s political career was over, top congressional Republicans approached the president, informing him he no longer had their support in Congress, and that he should step down from power — or face impeachment. On Aug. 9, 1974, President Richard M. Nixon became the first — and only, US president to resign from office.

191122 Nixon
President Richard M. Nixon points to the transcripts of the White House tapes in Washington, after he announced on television that he would turn over the transcripts to House impeachment investigators. Image Credit: AP

Potential risks

Following the public release of the tapes, Nixon’s approval rating plummeted to 20%. Trump however, continues to gain political traction in public polling despite the mounting evidence against him. One major difference between 1974 and today is the popularity of right-wing media.

In the early 70s, the public had access to only four national television networks, yet in today’s 24-hour news cycle, viewers have endless options of hard-right fringe media which often present ‘alternative’ facts that are tailored to mimic the disgruntled views of the extreme edges of the GOP.

Another significant contrast involves Nixon’s first Vice President, Spiro Agnew who was indicted in 1973 in the state of Maryland on suspicions of extortion and bribery charges. As part of a plea deal with the Justice Department, Agnew agreed to resign from office in order to avoid jailtime.

Considering Trump faces a variety of federal and state charges, offering a comparable plea in which the former president agrees not to run for office in exchange for no imprisonment could be unrealistic, as his legal issues are far more complex and cross multiple state lines.

There exists an unsettling variable to Trump’s legal saga that remains unparalleled in US history. Political polarisation in America is intensifying regarding one of the country’s founding principle’s — that no person is above the law. There is a growing dispute between those who believe in the rule of law, and those who do not.

Such a divergence begs the question, what happens in the public square if Trump, a man who remains wildly popular among a base that was willing to desecrate the US. Capitol in response to his election fraud claims, is charged and sentenced to prison? Would the events of Jan. 6 seem trivial in comparison to the reaction of Trump being convicted of a crime, with the potential of facing years in jail?

While there are potential risks in holding Trump legally accountable for his actions, both in terms of national security and worsening a bitterly divided nation, refusing to hold any American accountable for his or her actions would undermine the democratic principles the nation was founded upon.

Gina Bou Serhal is a Researcher with the Strategic Studies Program at Trends Research & Advisory in Dubai